Court Releases Asylum Seeker to Family in California Pending Trial

The Ron deLLugo Federal Courthouse. (File photo)
The Ron de Lugo Federal Courthouse. (File photo)

A Syrian national arrested on St. Thomas and charged with illegally entering the territory was released into the custody of his family in California pending the outcome of his case.

George Soufan appeared in V.I. District Court Wednesday after being detained late last week on St. Thomas.

According to court documents, Soufan turned himself over to police Saturday, and the matter was quickly referred to local U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agents took Soufan into custody in Red Hook and moved him to Cyril E. King Airport for processing, where they found that Soufan had no documents in his possession that would allow him to legally enter the country, and charged him with “unlawful entry by an alien,” a federal crime.

Soufan wore a red prison jumpsuit when he appeared Wednesday before Magistrate Court Judge Ruth Miller. Wearing headphones, Soufan relied on a translator to interpret what happened during the hearing, and spoke only to confirm that he understood what the translator was saying.

His attorney, Gabriel Villegas, along with Homeland Security Investigation Task Force agents, related a detailed story of his arrival on St. Thomas, which spanned more than two years. Soufan left Syria in order to avoid being enlisted by the army and militias charged with protecting his small Christian village, Ina Anaz Homs, located near the Lebanon border, according to court documents. From Syria, Soufan traveled with an uncle to Brazil – he has provided investigators with a three-month visa obtained by the uncle – then onto St. Martin, where Soufan lived for two years, saving up money to travel St. Thomas.

Friday, Soufan traveled to St. John, then took the ferry over, where he immediately surrendered himself. During Wednesday’s hearing, however, this small detail was a bone of contention for both the prosecution and defense, who said the criminal charge pending against Soufan could have been avoided had he turned himself into the Customs and Border Protection Office on St. John instead of traveling to St. Thomas.

With this in mind, Villegas agreed to waive any preliminary testimony Wednesday, with the understanding that in doing so, he did not want to hurt his client’s chance at seeking asylum, which both sides eventually agreed to.

During the hearing, authorities testifying said that Soufan had a brother in California with legal status – and an uncle with a status hearing in two months – that could take charge of Soufan pending the resolution of his case. While Villegas proposed staying the unlawful entry charge so that it would not affect Soufan’s claim, the prosecution said they would have to do their due diligence – including background checks on Soufan’s uncle and brother, along with a visit to their house to confirm its location – before they could send him to California and release him into their third party custody with electronic monitoring.

While Villegas pushed to have the matter resolved Wednesday – he argued that at 18, Soufan was still a teenager and should not have to spend another night in jail if it could be avoided – prosecutors said it could take a few hours to a day to complete.

Hoping to expedite the process, the court recessed and reconvened late in the afternoon, where Miller granted Soufan’s release into the custody of his brother, and under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office.